By Brandon Hansen/Chewelah Independent Managing Editor
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Chewelah is a small school.
Since becoming a high school sports reporter in 2010, I’ve seen a steady theme stretch from the Rocky Mountains in Lake County, Montana, to the rainy lowlands of Lewis County, Washington and finally in our part of the woods in Chewelah.
Rural areas are getting smaller schools enrolments. I hear the same thing uttered “People are having fewer kids, people are moving and working in the cities, there isn’t much to keep a lot of people here.”
Since moving back to this town, I’ve seen Chewelah fight this concept tooth and nail. “Size? Money? Rural? So what? Let’s throw a party!” seems to be the common reaction from community event leaders. Having grown up in this town, having lived in other small towns and rural communities with more people but perhaps less pride, the spirit in this town is a thing, an important thing and it is noticeable in the quality of life.
The same fighting tooth and nail concept can be used for the Chewelah football team. When I was in high school, the school was a 2A designation and had a freshman team, JV team and a varsity squad and these teams were quite self-sustaining and didn’t need to borrow a lot of kids from each. It was just the high school kids in the building back then and we had close to, if not over, 400 kids in the school.
Now we have 214 from the last WIAA enrollment figures.
Chewelah is now 1A, partly because the WIAA redid their classifications, but also because of the big drop in numbers of kids. It’s the second-smallest school in the 1A classifications, by less than half a kid, not including opt-up schools.
The Chewelah Cougar football season ended last Saturday on the football field in Kettle Falls with a close and thrilling game against Omak. The Cougars lost 35-26 and finished the season 3-6 which is their win total since 2012.
They played against schools with bigger enrollments – by a large margin – in eight of the nine games. In six of those schools, enrollment was over 100 more kids than Chewelah. Only their nonleague bout against 2B Bridgeport, which was a 41-0 Cougar win, was against a school with a smaller enrollment (214 compared to their 160).
Still you wouldn’t have known it under first-year coach Levi Hogan. I was on the sideline for nearly every game this season and I didn’t once hear somebody say, “well the other school is bigger than us.” I didn’t hear a cuss word either, except for the few I let out when ruining my new Nikes on Colville’s mud bog field.
This isn’t like thirty years ago, when a small school could pit their best kids against a bigger school’s best kids and hey, you still have a competitive contest! High school sports have changed so much that the difference between the haves and have-nots have expanded greatly. Many times now, the outcome of the contest is decided long before anybody steps on the field.
Over on the west side of the state, many public schools forfeited games against private school Archbishop Murphy this year because the disparity in talent was so great, administrators were worried for safety reasons since a chance of victory was pretty much zero. A recent story involving the firing of a coach in the Vancouver area saw administrators agreeing to pull each other’s starters once a three-touchdown lead had been established.
Chewelah didn’t have this problem. Their scoring margin last year was 135-291. They improved that to 180-188. A point not lost on several parents who commented that this year was just more fun to watch.
This coming after turnout for football was in the mid 30’s in the early Fall. That’s 2B school level turnout numbers. I heard a few jokes from people saying maybe we could get a few community members to put on shoulder pads just so the sideline didn’t look so sparse.
The Cougars who played didn’t care about the numbers.
The Cougars were competitive against the largest team in the league, Deer Park, until late in the second half. Chewelah handedly defeated Medical Lake, enrollment 400, and Riverside, enrollment 348.
Sure those programs were down, but it’s got to be pointed out because basically our sports teams are lining up underclassmen because we have to, against older and more physically developed players. It’s just how things go when you have 214 kids in the entire school.
Things have changed greatly for Chewelah schools. Having sat in some parent meetings about hiring coaches, I still see a great premium put on winning. This is a mistake because the deck is stacked against the Cougars before they even take the field. It’s essentially wondering why a school like Eastern Washington University is not in the FBS College Football Playoffs with the likes of the University of Washington.
From the Cougar football team, I got the sense that execution and character were more important than the scoreboard. They were introduced as a team every game. I never heard an argument on the sideline. When the score didn’t reflect a favorable outcome, starters didn’t become overcome with a sudden rash of injuries to come out of the game and I’m pretty sure Kaden Mackowiak could bring down a tree with a tackle instead of a chainsaw.
If (and when) Chewelah makes a move to the 2B ranks, you’ll see much more drastic changes on the scoreboard. This is because that classification is a much more natural fit for a small town like Chewelah. When the playing field is at least in the ballpark of fairness, a team like this year’s football squad will have a chance to shine much more brightly.
Thank you Cougar football players for ignoring the odds. Chewelah might be a small school, but there’s nothing small with what you guys did this season.